Can't expect learning curve to straighten right away

August 16, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

THE FIRST HALF of the Ravens' 2002 season has been played out in the first two preseason games. The consistency will vary from week to week.

One Sunday, the defense will be average. The next week, it will get kicked around. One game, the offense will turn in a dud performance. The next week, it will have moderate success.

That's what happens when you lose seven starters from a great defense. That's what happens when you lose your top two receivers, and your team is loaded with so many young players still learning an NFL playbook.

The Ravens got slapped with a dose of reality last night in preseason game No. 2 at Ravens Stadium -- a 34-16 defeat. The New York Jets are a much better team than last week's patsy, the Detroit Lions, and maybe now some of those who mentioned this defense in the same breath as the one that Baltimore had the past two seasons will stop.

Please.

But you can't be too harsh on the Baby Birds. Third-year quarterback Chris Redman ran the first unit's short-passing offense well, a must for success this season. Offensive tackle Edwin Mulitalo improved significantly on the right side, and rookie running back Chester Taylor was impressive in his pro debut.

And then there was Jamal Lewis.

The third-year running back played in his first game since major knee surgery last August, and he looked like the old Lewis, rushing four times for 24 yards. Oh, did he look sweet coming around the corner on that trap play for a 13-yard gain in the first quarter.

Poor Elvis Grbac has to be sitting in his rocking chair at home in Cleveland, wondering, "What if?"

But the Ravens' defensive problems were glaring, and they are not totally unexpected. Coming into training camp, three of the team's top priorities were to stop the run, not give up big passing plays and find out if Mulitalo could make the transition from left guard to right tackle.

Last night, the Jets' first unit did anything it wanted to offensively. The Ravens were without two Pro Bowl players, defensive end Michael McCrary and outside linebacker Peter Boulware, but they don't play cornerback.

Or safety. Or nickel back.

Jets receivers had the Ravens' cornerbacks on a virtual carousel, especially New York's Wayne Chrebet, who repeatedly turned young cornerbacks Alvin Porter and Reggie Waddell. They still don't know where he is, but they'd better get used to teams coming after them with perennial Pro Bowl cornerback Chris McAlister on the other side. Porter gave up receptions of 10, 21 and 31 yards on the game's first drive, which lasted 2 minutes and 15 seconds.

Jets quarterback Vinny Testaverde was 9-for-12 for 129 yards before leaving midway in the second quarter. The Jets were just as efficient running the ball in the first half, with 40 yards on eight carries against a young defensive line that will be outweighed and outclassed for the entire season. Running back Curtis Martin had success running on the perimeter, a problem the Ravens had last season. He also ran away from Ravens Pro Bowl middle linebacker Ray Lewis, who now has to share the middle with second year linebacker Ed Hartwell in the team's new 3-4 scheme.

"We weren't as crisp as a first unit as we should have been," McAlister said. "It's still preseason and we can improve. It's something we need to learn from."

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said: "We have to do a beter job on first-and-10. We did OK when we contained them on first down. We have to win more one-on-one battles, whether making the tackle when we have the chance, re-routing a receiver or stuffing their offensive lines."

Jamal Lewis was just as good as Martin. Ravens coach Brian Billick replaced him with 7:20 left in the half. Thirty seconds later, Billick was shaking his hands on the sideline.

"He's running so hard, broke through a couple a couple of tackles, dragged a guy a little bit there," Billick said. "I know he feels better. I know I do."

Mulitalo made up for last week's performance when he was beaten three times. The key for Mulitalo is to remain patient and not get overextended. He wanted to make an improvement with his pass blocking, especially using his hands. The experiment will now be extended several more weeks.

Redman also improved significantly from a week ago when he made several mental mistakes. Like Mulitalo, he showed patience in the short-pass, West Coast offense. He got receivers Brandon Stokley and tight end Todd Heap involved, and also found receivers out of the backfield.

"Not a bad half," said Ravens offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh. "We just had a few careless mistakes like holding and some dropped balls. We are doing OK. Our runners have been very aggressive. Coming in, we wanted to focus on our backs catching a lot of balls tonight, and it looks like we are doing that."

True. The Ravens will need a ball-control offense this season to be successful, especially with a young defense. There were a couple of times when they had to call timeouts because of a mix-up in formations, and Redman eventually will have to prove that he can throw the long ball because defenses will adjust and take away the short passes.

But that's all for another day. With this team, it's going to take time. For the first eight regular-season games, the learning process will vary from week to week until a young team can find some consistency.

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